I'm doing a lot of reading these days about faith, spirituality and relationships. I was prompted, not too long ago, to recall a fond memory, and this one came to mind. With Thanksgiving coming soon in the U.S., I wanted to share it with all of you who, like me, tend to get lost in the details sometimes.
I was about 15 years old and we were at Grandma and Grandpa's house in Union Mills, Indiana for Sunday dinner. Grandma was going to cook a nice meal for everyone. If I remember right, there was turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, several vegetables, and as always, a tray with green onions and radishes.
Eating a fancy dinner at Grandma and Grandpa's was always lovely. Grandma had all the little bowls, tiny forks, silver ladles and everything to make a meal feel special. She would get them all out for a fancy dinner. Other times, we might serve from the pots and pans, but not this meal. We sat in the dining room, the napkins were cloth, and it was all lovely.
Grandma made mashed potatoes, put them in the serving bowl, put a pat of butter on top, then sprinkled the whole thing with a light dusting of paprika. I thought that was just about the fanciest thing I'd ever seen anyone do. But this Sunday, she shooed everyone out of the kitchen - except me - and told me she was going to teach me how to make her secret stuffing.
I was so excited. I always liked to be in the kitchen, and secret recipes were always so intriguing and fun. I figured we'd be cubing some bread, sprinkling herbs, drizzling chicken stock - the whole nine yards. I couldn't wait to learn one of Grandma's secret recipes. Her stuffing was always good, and I felt completely privileged to be the one she shared her secret with.
Everyone was off doing other things, and grandma got out a saucepan and began to heat some water. She added some butter and gave it a stir before she got the serving bowl from the cabinet. Next, she went to her pantry and got out a tin of oysters....and a box of Stove Top stuffing. She opened the oysters and poured the juice from the can into the water on the stove, but left all the oysters in the can. She gave me four or five to mince, and I set to work, mincing. Meanwhile, Grandma ate oysters from the tin, and fed a few to me. I'd never had an oyster, and I don't know if I truly liked them on my own or if I liked them because Grandma did, but either way, I thought they were fantastic. When I got the other oysters minced fine, she put them into the now-simmering water. Then she opened the stuffing box, added the packet of seasoning (remember when the seasoning was a separate packet?) and let it simmer for a few minutes.
I had to ask. "Grandma, I thought your secret recipe was from scratch. Everyone always loves your stuffing, but they think you make it from...well, ingredients."
"I do make it from ingredients, honey. I use a can of oysters and a box of stuffing. Those are the ingredients," she replied. "Sure, I could stay in here half the day chopping and mincing and stirring and adjusting, but everyone likes this, it doesn't make me so tired, and I get to spend more time with all of you, instead of on the cooking. I'd rather be with you-all than in here making food by myself."
It turned out that Grandma's stuffing secret was to mince the oysters really fine, so that she could eat more of them. But what I learned from her that day is that really, it's okay to let go of some of the details. Grandma raised three children in the 1930's. She and Grandpa spent a good portion of their lives making do, stretching meals and doing what had to be done to make ends meet. I think she wanted me to know that what's most important isn't the meal, but the people. Spend time with the people, and enjoy them. Sure, get the fancy dishes out for them now and again, but don't work yourself to death making everything a certain way, because the time you have is the time you have. Spend it wisely...and enjoy the oysters - right from the can.
P. S. Growing up, I'd heard stories about how Grandpa would walk an extra mile to save a penny on a pound of beans and Grandma would open cans on the bottom, wash them out after they were empty, and put the empty cans back into the cabinet up high, so the kids wouldn't know how little food they had. She didn't want them to worry.
I used her can trick when I was in college, so my own parents wouldn't know that I had almost nothing in my little apartment. I even had a rock that looked just like a potato, so I put it in a hanging basket in my kitchen...for a year and a half.